Sunday, December 17, 2017
Vera Belikh A Flower of the Heart
Flowers of the Heart Twelve. December 17, 2017
For Vera Belikh
Like Odysseus, she was never at a loss.
I met her because I wrote to the painter
Aleksei Belikh in English, and she
translated my letters for her father. He
called her Verochka. Aleksei and his
wife Nadya were both painters, and
their other daughter Lyuba, was, too.
About this time Vera began painting.
She had graduated in Philosophy and
studied English, German, and Old
Church Slavonic on her own. She
went to lectures on ikons. I met her
in 1992, when I was visiting Kostroma,
and her family invited me, my
journalist friend Susan, and Mikhail’s
family for a meal in their apartment.
Lyuba was the cook. Vera was there
with her two young sons. She had wanted
to talk to me, but there wasn’t much
chance with all those people. Later,
when I returned in 1995 and stayed
two weeks, I saw Vera often, ate
with her husband and sons, and walked
with her to see where Akmatova
lived on the Fontanka. We visited
graveyards where Dostoevsky and
other famous dead were buried.
The gloomy, neglected city came
alive. “Here was where Dostoevsky
lived. He liked to look at the church
he could see from his window.” In
1995 Vera was pregnant, still light
on her feet like a dancer. Her living
room full of her paintings. When we
descended the long escalator for
the Metro, she turned around to
talk to me. I always held tight,
afraid to look at how far down we
were going. Since then, she has kept
in touch, always remembers my
birthday and sends me photos of her
and her paintings. Her husband died
a few years ago, and she teaches children.
She also sells her paintings. Her parents
and her sister are always there to help,
but Vera has the inner resources to
cope quietly. The surface of the lake
she is is never turbulent. Shadows
cross it, occasional ripples, but she
finds her way easily, without fanfare.
The world of the dead doesn’t
frighten her. The dead are her friends.
From Sun 12
September 18, 1995
Vera finds blue water and gold spires
in St. Petersburg; a red maple leaf,
the only thing alive in the necropolis.
She takes my arm, and we walk
to see the graves, the sculptures
of the famous Russian dead: Dostoevsky,
Tchaikovsky, Andreev, Borodin,
Mussorgsky, Pavlov, Lenin’s mother,
monks killed just after the Revolution.
Some sculptures are missing. We
don’t know who sleeps where there
was once a face, a name, dates, what
they were famous for. Passions run high
in Russian graveyards. I am relieved
that Dostoevsky stands, that a favorite
epigram of his is still legible on
his tomb. Vera translates and
holds an acorn in her palm: “The seed
must die for the plant to live again.”
I understand. Life renews itself by
accepting death. I know that Vera does,
and it is why she can be cheerful
in a gloomy city, serene in the necropolis.
The dead are her friends. I think she
knows that one day she will be here
among them. Painters. Here lies
one of her sister Lyuba’s teachers;
dancers; film stars; scholars;
scientists. Socrates’ wish come true.
He can speak with all the great
thinkers in the afterlife.
wanted to know if I believed in
the afterlife. I said I didn’t know
about the afterlife, but that this
life gave us our main chance:
to live well, to become the best
people we could, to learn what life
is, to grow wise and ready for
the next life, if there is one. She
misses Andrei. So do I. But Andrei
lives with me. I translate his
poetry and learn how his mind
worked, though I learned from
his presence, too; his silences
and jokes; his acts and his
words: “my most unusual friend,”
he called me. I learn from
his wife’s eagerness to talk to me.
I think that Andrei, too, lived
ready to die. We must do his
work now, since his chance is
But it is Vera who teaches me
how to live in Russia, how to find
red leaves and gold spires, and quiet
blue water reflecting sun-warmed,
reddish stone. It is Vera who
walks so firmly, as light on her
feet as a dancer. The escalator
descends deep under the earth. I
hold the hand rail tightly, prefer
not to look down. She steps in
front of me, turns around, is as
at ease, as if we were able to stand
on fluffy clouds and not fall.
She brings me soup and bread,
tea and cookies she has made.
Her boys skip in carrying plates
and teacups. Her husband listens
intently as I explain something in
Russian. Their living room is
crowded with Vera’s paintings.
Wall to wall books and then, resting
against them, still lifes, scenes of
St. Petersburg. The buildings are old
and grey, in need of paint and repairs;
the sidewalk and the street are broken.
I do not walk surefootedly. But
Vera takes my arm and points out
a building where Akhmatova and her
poet friends gathered; where Nastasia
lived, she whose passions and pride
dominated The Idiot. We pass
Dostoevsky’s home. “He liked to look out
the window at the church spires,” she says.
I have seen the gold statues at
Petergoff, standing in and near the
great fountains, and the gold in the
Peter and Paul Cathedral, overwhelming
to the eye. But in Vera’s vision
of St. Petersburg is the real gold.
The blue of the living water, the gold
of a life lived simply, cheerfully, well,
with an eye always open to the only
red maple leaf that lies among
the stones of the dead.